SURELY A PLAY will be written some day about what's been going on in Jordan, Minnesota. It's inevitable, for the story involves the deepest human emotions and the drama of terrible crimes, accusations, family conflicts and community tensions.

The story, which is still unresolved, began in September of last year when a mother reported to police that her 9-year-old daughter had been sexually abused by a local trash collector, James Rud. The accused man had twice been convicted of molesting children in other towns and was on probation at the time. In the following months, more children made charges against Mr. Rud and against dozens of other adults; some even accused their own parents. Eventually 25 people were arrested and charged with a wide range of sickening offenses against the children. At the height of the panic, state law enforcement officers and the FBI were called in to investigate three boys' story that a ring of pornographers was operating in Jordan and that they had murdered children and thrown their bodies into the Minnesota River.

Things have calmed down now. The first couple tried for child abuse was acquitted and charges against all the others have been dropped. Mr. Rud pleaded guilty, and this week he recanted earlier statements implicating others. No bodies have been found, and the three boys who started the murder scare have admitted to lying.

But for more than a year terrible things happened, not only to the people involved, but to the whole community of 2,700 people. Dozens of children, some of them pre-schoolers, were taken from their parents and placed in foster homes in another county. Public officials, including a police officer and the deputy sheriff, were among those accused. The local Lutheran minister felt it was necessary to obtain an affidavit from the prosecutor to satisfy his congregation that he and his wife were not suspects. Tourists began coming to the town and taking pictures, and neighbors grew wary of each other. Parents report an increasing wariness about showing affection, even to their own children. One even said her adolescent son had threatened to report her as a child abuser if she did not agree to some childish request.

Some of the therapists who counseled the children still believe that many of the stories were true, and they are concerned that, in the backlash over the groundless accusations, none will be believed. But there is little doubt many innocent people, including small children, have suffered because of charges that were simply wildly out of order.

Cases involving sexual abuse of children have received a lot of public attention recently, and that's good. Authorities must continue to listen seriously to children with these stories and make every effort to protect youngsters by educating and supervising them. But the trauma of Jordan is a reminder of how important it is to be extremely careful when responding to these devastating accusations, because the consequences of injustice are also severe and irreversible.